By Lori Cameron and Michael Martinez
We all know about the Internet of Things, those everyday objects such as thermostats, cars, lights, fridges, and other appliances that we can access online.
It was just a matter of time, then, before we invented the Internet of Things-We-Don’t-Talk-About.
The IoTWDTA era is here, but not all of it is, um, too delicate to broach in polite company.
Yes, there are the smart toilets and the smart tampons (we warned you).
But there are other IoT novelties that span the gamut from the fun to the useful to the scary: hair-trigger sensors, smell-good electronics, disappearing wearables, and eavesdropping toys.
This is all such serious business that it was featured at the 2017 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
“We can vouch for the fascinating creativity and industriousness of the pervasive computing community, and we cover here a few of the conference presentations,” wrote Mary Baker of HP Labs and Justin Manweiler of the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, authors of “Sensing, Privacy, and Things We Don’t Discuss,” which appears in the July-September 2017 issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing.
Here’s some of the latest tech designed to amuse, fascinate, embarrass, and frighten you to death.
Smart toilets – Some people might think that establishing international smart toilet standards is ridiculous, but not in Japan.
The Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association—a group of companies that includes Toto, Panasonic, and Toshiba—wanted to help reduce the amount of confusion experienced by tourists who try to use the smart toilets that populate restrooms all over the country.
What makes a toilet smart? A smart toilet can lift its own lid automatically, wash you off when you finish, dry you, and flush itself. In addition, apps allow you to operate the toilet without touching it and keep track of the “nature” of your bowel movements on a calendar with little cartoon characters that look like fecal matter in various colors, poses, and levels of density. High-end toilets will even play music for you while you do your business.
Who knew that going to the bathroom could be so involved? Yet, who knew that using a smart toilet in Japan could be so confusing?
“Since most of the tourists will not be able to read Japanese, icon design and standardization for signs and instructions is part of the solution,” wrote Baker and Manweiler.
The consortium hopes the iconography is adopted by other countries as well.
Smart tampons – For women, monthly periods can be an ordeal.
To help, researchers have developed a smart tampon that tells women when it’s time to swap it out.
The my.Flow device is a Bluetooth-enabled sensor that connects to a special tampon and communicates to a smartphone app to tell women when it is time to change the tampon.
“This helps avoid embarrassing disasters but also reduces health risks from toxic shock syndrome. However, it requires tampons with long, insulated strings that connect to a sensor device that must be attached to your waistband,” wrote Baker and Manweiler.
Touch guitar – Say goodbye to whammy bars and volume knobs. Soon, musicians will be able to change the volume, filters, and sound effects of a guitar simply by touching the face of it.
Researchers have developed a touch interface by coating the guitar with spray paint containing electrically conductive materials.
The technology can enable touch sensing through electric tomography. The guitar is equipped with electrode-laden copper tape around the edges of the interactive region and a wire extending to a sensing board.
“The board puts an electric field into the conductive material and senses changes in the distribution of the field as a result of a user’s touch,” say Baker and Manweiler.
G-putty – Researchers combined silly putty with Graphene to form a network of electrical conductors, making it possible to measure very small changes in electrical resistance caused by deformation. This results in a sensor for pressure, impact, strain, and so forth.
Scientists “demonstrate the potential of G-putty as a very sensitive impact sensor by capturing a small spider and inducing it to walk over a clingfilm-coated G-putty sensor. Their paper includes a resistance plot showing the individual spider footsteps, along with a photo of the spider itself!” say Baker and Manweiler.
Olfactory sensors – Researchers have developed the “Essence” necklace, an olfactory sensor that emits scents that can improve your mood. The pendant contains fragrance that includes a cap with a piezoelectric transducer and a small metal plate that vibrates to release the fragrance absorbed by an attached cotton stick filter.
Some possible applications include improving virtual or mixed-reality scenarios; triggering memories or emotions associated with scents; and promoting alertness, calmness, and well-being.
Self-driving cars – Most smart car research has to do with the auto technology itself.
However, researchers have also looked at the human side of self-driving cars and found some surprising results.
Motorists were asked what they would do in a car that drives itself. On a scale from 1 to 5, “read a book” scored highest with an average of 2.9. “Catch up with friends and family” (2.8) and “get work done” (2.7) came in a close second and third.
“On the other hand, some amount of time would apparently also be spent eating, sleeping, having sex, and doing drugs,” said Baker and Manweiler.
Hunger – The University of Minnesota created the “freedge” smart fridge network to help address hunger. Working with local hunger organizations, they constructed a fridge of separate compartments with independent doors. Those donating a meal simply place it into an empty compartment.
“The freedge senses when the door closes and sends a signal to a Raspberry Pi that uploads a photo of the meal to the associated web app. Users can browse freedge locations and contents via their smartphones or a tablet mounted on a freedge. Users can reserve the meal via the app, so that only they can unlock the compartment, or they can directly take an unreserved meal from a compartment,” wrote Baker and Manweiler.
Rotten food – Two of the biggest problems with current food consumption is waste and food poisoning. The company C2Sense is developing chemi-resistive sensors that can detect trace amounts of gases, such as ethylene and amine, released from fruit and meat as they grow old.
“As a consumer, an app on your smartphone could use data from the sensor to tell you whether the food is fresh enough, but the chips will also be useful throughout the supply chain, helping distributors plan when they need to ship food items,” said Baker and Manweiler.
One topic of serious concern at the conference was invasion of privacy—and how everyday products are eavesdropping on citizens around the world.
Parents in Germany received a notice about a toy doll that uses embedded speakers and microphones to ask children questions about themselves and their parents, and records their answers.
“The ‘My Friend Cayla’ doll has been removed from the market, and authorities recommend that purchasers destroy the toy,” said Baker and Manweiler.
In addition, school issued laptops in the United States are tracking students, collecting information about them (far more than would seem necessary), and storing that information indefinitely.
“The information can include browsing history, search terms, contacts, and even behavioral information, and the data collection often occurs without parental consent or knowledge,” say Baker and Manweiler.
The Bright Side – While some presenters warned of the dangers of illicit data collection, others offered ways to make sure no one can get their hands on your private information. Researchers at Stanford have created an electronic wearable that dissolves in vinegar in 30 days.
The initial purpose of the technology was to cut down on electronic waste, but it shows promise as a way to erase information permanently on discarded hard drives and other devices.
More strange tech and the Internet of Things from the Computer Society Digital Library: